Greg Cartwright: The Reigning Sound from Way Out
An interview with the band's leader, plus our premiere of Reigning Sound's new video for "Never Coming Home."
Watch "Never Coming Home," the new video from Reigning Sound, which we're thrilled to premiere as a complement to this great interview our own Zachary Lipez did with Greg Cartwright, the venerable RS leader, below.
Greg Cartwright is way nicer than he has to be. Having been a leading member of some of the best black-heart-on-sleeve bands to ever opt for smoking Chesterfield Kings not as affectation but cos coughing is sexy and the tar level meant an earlier death, he could have kept his sunglasses on and made fun of me because I keep all my 45s on an iPod and I would have just thought, “That’s fine. Greg was in The Oblivians.” But Mr. Cartwright, who, with his garage soul band of the last 13 years, Reigning Sound, just put out what I consider their finest album, Shattered, was an easy going delight who sat outside with me drinking iced tea and letting me smoke his cigarettes.
Shatteredis a departure from much of Cartwright’s body of work. Not just that it was recorded in Brooklyn’s Daptone Studios but also in that Greg’s voice is on top, reedy and emotive, so it feels even more personal than some earlier, ostensibly about his own relationships, albums. Even if the sense of intimacy is more an indication of Cartwright’s actual songwriting being at a peak; with rock and roll the feeling that the singer is singing your life, even if it’s a life that you couldn’t possibly have lived, that is more important than almost all considerations. That’s why, in a garage climate where lyrics are almost entirely secondary to vibe, and gesture to previous vibes of previous eras, the blatant romanticism and earnest song-craft of Reigning Sound is so brave and ultimately successful. It’s, if you’ll forgive my own earnestness, a truly lovely album.
We began the interview with a long discursive discussion of NYC in the ‘90s; which of course led to a discussion of the Major Label Post-Grunge/Punk Feeding Frenzy…and The Hives…
Noisey: Did any of the bands you were in ever get courted – I mean I feel like major labels were always poaching every scene at all times through the 90’s.
Greg Cartwright:They were! Especially right…that guy…. Who’s the guy, English guy who started Creation… Alan something…
McGee. (Sidenote: my girlfriend thinks we’re both dummies that we didn’t know that Alan Mcgee is Scottish. Sorry, baby.)
Right. He pulled a lot of The Hives tracks from different records and made a compilation, which became a huge hit in Europe. The came over to the states to tour, and there was a feeding-frenzy of who was going to be the major label to sign them. That was the point where they asked if we’d come to do these tours with them.
That was with which band?
That was with Reigning Sound. That was right when Time Bomb High School came out. We did all these tours and I was getting calls from these A&R people all the time from all the majors wanting me to send them CDs and I was like, “Fuck you! You’re an A&R guy; you’ve got a budget. Go buy it.” At that time, the label I was dealing with had mailings when the record came out, but I couldn’t just call him and ask him to send to this place or that, cos it was just one guy, basically running it out of his garage.
You also couldn’t just ask him to send it out so you could move to a bigger label….
Yeah! It’s like, “I wanna jump away from you, can you help me?!” The thing is, I was really happy with him. So…
What label was that?
That was In The Red.
Oh, well I know they’re not huge but he’s got people working with him now, right?
Yeah, he’s got two or three people there now that help him, but at that time it was pretty much him. Jimmy Hole lived in his backhouse, and to pay his rent, he would put all the art together for the album covers so….[laughs] It was very much a one-man operation.
So yeah, at that time we were courted by majors, but I was really uncomfortable by it. I just don’t think my head was calibrated for that lifestyle, cos I had a family. I was very family-oriented and I didn’t want to devote that bigga chunk of my life to… rock music. And it required that to go that extra step. You needed to be available to tour all the time.
A year later when The Hives came back to tour, I heard all the major label horror stories – like having to turn a record three times and having the label keep saying to go back and do it again. I know I couldn’t do that. Cos when I complete a record, I’m done with it. And I expect whoever’s putting it out to accept it for what it is.
It’s funny to hear stories from that time period, like labels acting like they did in the 70s, and you know in hindsight that within a year, it’s all going to collapse.
Yeah, you saw what happened in the late 60’s, like watching San Francisco in 1967. The majors are just coming in, and just snapping everybody up, and they’re all cheap! You can have them for nothing. Then you see by 1972 or 1973, most of those bands didn’t happen. They threw it at the wall, and it didn’t stick, if it even happened.
There becomes this feeding frenzy to make sure that you get a piece of whatever that action is. But sometimes it takes so long to make a record for a corporation that big, to please everybody and make sure you’re not stepping on anyone’s toes, and to make sure they think it’s ready – by the time you get all those ducks in a row, uhhh, grunge is over! You have a totally dated product.
Then you have that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or whatever, you see the other side, where the band is like, “No, this is the fucking record!” And the A&R person is like, “No!” So they say, “Okay, well we’ll take the record to somebody else.” And then it’s a huge hit. And then that A&R guy gets fired.
You have to let the artist make what they want to make because people in suits don’t know. They just don’t know. They’re guessing by looking at market trends and stuff. But that stuff is in flux. They can only look at what’s already happened. It’s your job as the artist to try to be moving forward.
I mean, I remember when grunge started to happen, and the radio stations started to change their format. You started to see this big shift of the whole corporate world trying to jump on the next thing. But even at that point, they’re so slow in their steps that it’s too late. You know, by the time Rock 103 becomes 103 The Edge, it’s too late! Kids have moved on.
When did the Compulsive Gamblers start?
They started in ’88. First we were called The Painkillers. That was me and Jack, and some other folks who lived in our apartment building.
How old were you?
Jack was in his mid to late twenties and I was seventeen or eighteen. I left my parent’s house when I was sixteen. It was one of those things were I was terrible at school and not living up to their expectations. And I wasn’t living up to mine either. I remember my dad taking me on a car ride one day after a horrendous report card and he was like, “Son, what do you want to do? Do you want to go to a technical college? Do you wanna work on cars?”
He worked a factory, right?
Yeah, he worked at Firestone…. all my uncles worked at Harvester. There was still factory work in Memphis up until the early 80s. At that point he was working at a car lot. He had taken a lot of classes to learn a trade, so he wanted to know if there was a trade I was interested cos I was obviously horrible at school. I told him I really wanted to be a musician and make records. And he said, “Okay, that’s good. Pick something else.”
Is your dad still alive?
So he got to see you succeed!
Yeah, he and my mother both. My brother, I love him, he’s the good son. He’s such a sweet guy, and he’s a doctor. He works at a prestigious hospital, and he’s amazing. They always knew he’d be okay. I was the worrisome one. I think I finally did manage to carve out some kind of niche for myself, doing what I wanted to do.
I’ve read in interviews that part of what got you out of hardcore was seeing artists like Tav Falco and now, people talk about you like they talk about Tav Falco. Not trying to over-flatter, but you’ve become a part of that tradition. Is that strange or do you not think about that stuff?
It’s a little strange, but it makes me happy to be thought of as part of a tradition. That makes me real happy cos that’s kinda what I’m trying to do on some level. I’m trying to continue something that I hear as the Memphis sound. I’m trying to keep moving forward with that, and keep all those elements of country and soul and rock, and keep them moving forward.
I want to try to always pay respect to that sound.
Specifically Memphis. Things that, are to me, specifically Memphis in the way that they work. Almost every Reining Sound record has had me covering one or two kind of obscure-o Memphis things (on Shattered, it’s “Baby It’s Too Late” by Garland Hilton). A lot of people don’t even know that they’re covers – they just fall into the set.
I think that speaks to your songwriting that they can blend seamlessly.
That’s me, kinda me setting a template for all the other stuff I’m going to do on the record. It’s the starting point.
To pull that off, do you have to set rules for each album? Or is it sorta ingrained in you to pass along that sound?
I don’t even think about it, I just know unconsciously it’s there. Part of it is cos that’s just who I am.
Lyrically things have been received as being very autobiographical. But it’s like; Smokey Robinson wasn’t just writing his diary.
Exactly. It’s a little bit of both. Some things are really autobiographical and some things are part and parcel small-town living. There’s a lot of gossip. It may not be my life, it’s informed by things I’m seeing happening to other people. In a small-town kinda way – it’s so catty and it’s so juicy and wonderful!
Do people ever see themselves in your work?
Are they happy or take issue with it?
No, no one’s ever taken issue with it though people have recognized in songs. But even more so, people recognize themselves in songs, and it’s not about them.
Yeah, that always makes me happy. It’s great. Anyway people can relate to something and they feel like you’re speaking about them is when you transcend all the other stuff like craft and practice and tightness. That’s all great, but it’s the ritual. It’s like Catholicism with the incense and kneeling. The ritual of it is what sets the scene so you can hopefully, transcend that and communicate something even higher.
Zachary Lipez is Noisey's resident adult correspondent. He's on Twitter - @ZacharyLipez